The Apostle Paul’s view of Ecclesia is consistent with Jesus’ view of Kingdom (Basileia).
For Paul, Kingdom is primarily Eternity or the Final Future Kingdom (see 1 C or 15:24), though he does use it in a way that makes me think he sees the Ecclesia as the primary manifestation of the Kingdom in the present world (Rom 14:17).
If we recall our comments on The Magnificat and Jesus’ inaugural sermon, and recall the socio-economic emphasis on restoring humans to the Table, then I think we are body to see three themes in Paul’s Ecclesia that derive directly from these central teachings of Jesus.
First, for Paul the Ecclesia is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12–14). It is a society that functions properly.
Second, for Paul the Ecclesia is a pneumatic body (again, 1 Cor 12–14). It is a society enlivened and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Third, for Paul the Ecclesia is a radically new society wherein old distictions are gone and new creation lives. “Neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female…” (Gal 3:28).
Fourth, for Paul the Ecclesia is an alternative society to the Empire of Rome and the intended goal for all peoples. When we begin to think in terms of the future, kingdom language takes over.
Finally, for Paul the Ecclesia is a saving presence for the entire world. Notice these words from Romans 8:
Rom. 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Put together now:
The Kingdom of God is the society in which the will of God is done and, in the hands of the early Apostles, this Kingdom society morphs into the “Church” as they move into the Roman Empire. But, in so doing, they do not drop the central social and global concerns of Jesus but demonstrate that they think through the Spirit these social concerns will be enlivened and empowered. What is also important is that they see the Church in more “sectarian” terms than Jesus saw the Kingdom — which makes sense: they are small part of a huge machine (Roman Empire) while he had claims on the entire nation of Israel.
(A nice little survey of this can be found in David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? and in Paul and Jesus: The True Story.)
The Church, as I see it, is an alternative society of Jesus designed to witness to and work for the redemption of the world.
So what does this tell us?
The first and most important lesson is that we need to be very careful when we make comments that suggest Jesus’ teachings are not consistent with Paul’s when it comes to Kingdom and Church. Paul (and Peter) were driven by their status in the Roman Empire and by the smallness of the movement to set up local missional communities of faith and to concentrate their concerns there — but their vision was the same as Jesus’. Kingdom of God, when “on earth” looked like “in heaven.”
Second, it means that Paul’s whole theology of salvation — terms like justification, atonement, and the like — are part and parcel of how the Ecclesia is formed, and this too is consistent with Jesus. Paul was not a radical individualist who thought exclusively in terms of individual salvation. This misunderstands Paul. Paul is an Ecclesia-theologian — a practitioner who starts up churches, revs them up, and then moves on for more of the same. But, always, Paul is concerned with missional communities and not just isolated worship centers.
Third, and my final comment on this series of Kingdom blogs, is that the gospel is designed to accomplish just this: the Kingdom of God, in the context of a community of faith (Ecclesia), for the good of others and the world. The gospel does its work through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the empowerment that comes from the Holy Spirit.